Businesspeople are From Mars; Lawyers are From Venus: Trust & Distrust Between Corporate Legal and the Rest of the Company

The Point

Consistent with my firsthand experience on both sides of the client / lawyer table — recent survey data reflect how businesspeople and corporate Legal view each other:

1. A majority of businesspeople think that attorneys don’t understand their work, and are unsupportive of that work.

2. A majority of corporate employees respond to this reality by sometimes simply bypassing Legal on deals or policy issues.

3. Most attorneys in the corporate law function are oblivious to these realities.

This Matters to Your Business

I invite your attention to my most recent post: “Sometimes Only an Experienced Lawyer’s Judgment Can Make the Difference Between Business Catastrophe and Success”. When a businessperson consults a lawyer before making a consequential decision, this has huge potential for protecting the company from foreseeable harms and preventable catastrophes. But only if the attorney has the chance to weigh in with their judgment.

Too often attorneys come off as obstructive of sincere efforts on the business side. So opportunities to anticipate risk and prevent harm are lost when those attorneys are left out of the loop.

Joe Patrice of Above The Law, interpreted this survey data in his “In-House Lawyers Don’t Seem to Grasp That The Business Side Doesn’t Really Trust Them”:

“For all the rhetoric about being on the same team, less than half of U.S. respondents thought of legal as a trusted business advisor — 73 percent of all respondents did not consider legal a ‘praiseworthy business partner’ — and around two-thirds of enterprise employees around the world said they were likely to bypass legal on deals ….

“Across the first two installments of this report, it seems the legal department is less the ‘Department of No’ that we used to quip about and more the ‘Department of No One Knows What We Do.’

“Because the business side isn’t doing an end run around the in-house lawyers when the company gets served with a lawsuit or when it’s trying to register a patent. It’s skipping over the legal department when it decides ‘what’s the harm in signing this vendor deal without bothering lawyers who just slow it down.’”

Because …

On my first day as associate general counsel of a Fortune 500 financial services company, the head of marketing greeted me as the newest member of our “department of business prevention”. Over the months and years that followed — especially after I left law practice to run a corporate division — I came to understand the serious relational truth behind that sarcasm: too many businesspeople do not trust attorneys to be on their team. And those attorneys have provided good reason for this mistrust.

Joe Patrice describes the significance of this relational gap between businesspeople and Legal:

“Business is missing what legal can bring to the table. Which is wrapped up in how business perceives the legal department overall … This gets to the discrepancy between how everyone generally views the relationship favorably while also admitting to hiding the ball ….

“Becoming an ever-present partner … requires in-house lawyers to acknowledge that they’ve got a problem. When 73 percent [of in-house counsel] ‘believe they have positive relationships with their internal clients’ that reads like complacency instead.”

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